It’s been a rare afternoon that the USA has lost quite so badly to a team next to it in the rankings. And while the 44-13 Tonga win over the Eagles was inflated by two soft tries at the end, part of the job is, of course, not to give up soft tries.
The job is also to play together on defense, be aware of your teammates enough to avoid forward passes, to hold onto the ball, and to execute the basics when a try is on offer.
With a few exceptions, the USA did not do this.
“We made a poor start,” said USA Head Coach Eddie O’Sullivan. “We let them jump out ahead of us. We looked pretty ring rusty and really we looked like a team that hadn’t played together in six months.”
O’Sullivan was pleased with the improvement in player in the second quarter of the match, a period that produced one try and almost two more.
“We might have been out ahead if we had not turned the ball over,” said the coach.
The end of the first half and beginning of the second, in fact, was the killer for the USA. Scott LaValla stretched over to score his second try in two games, but scrumhalf Soane Havea slapped the ball away, forcing a knock-on.
Then, at the beginning of the second half, Tonga had a scrum near midfield. When the ball came out, Todd Clever was tackled down to the ground without the ball. His job, as openside flanker, is to fill the holes between scrum and flyhalf, and flyhalf and inside center. With Clever not there, Etueni Siua raced right through that hole, and set up a try.
O’Sullivan was annoyed at the non-call, and the momentum shift for Tonga.
“I was disappointed in try in second half because I thought Todd was taken out and it was a bit of a sucker punch for us,” O’Sullivan said.
That try, and the non-try by LaValla were key moments, said O’Sullivan. It could have been 17-13 for the USA, instead of 20-10 Tonga.
But that said, the Eagles did plenty of things all on their own to lose this game. They had good six try-scoring opportunities, and came away with only ten points. They messed up the others thanks to a missed penalty kick, a muffed lineout, a knock-on at the tryline, and a poor maul that resulted in a penalty.
“We made a lot of unforced errors,” lamented O’Sullivan. “And we really lost our shape at the end and they got two quick tries at the end. So overall I was disappointed in the performance. We made a lot of unforced errors, turnovers, knock-ons, forward passes. I thought we made good tackles in the middle of the field. A lot of the problems we had were our own making. We’re not accurate in our set piece, not accurate in ball in hand, not accurate in defense.”
The reasons why the USA performance was so lacking are varied. O’Sullivan pointed out that he had made 13 changes from the previous game, and the team just wasn’t together enough. It’s worth noting that the two starters who started against the England Saxons, Scott LaValla and Colin Hawley, played quite well.
Captain Todd Clever pointed out that the team had been running two-a-days throughout their assembly, and were tired. O’Sullivan said there is likely something to that.
And observation shows that the backs just weren’t lining up right. They’d line up with a little depth and see balls dropped because the pass led too much. So the receivers would move up, while the passers would slow down to be sure of their passes. Result? Forward pass.
Scoring chances went begging because the lineout was changed from the Saxons game, and the timing was off.
And part of the problem was the tactics. O’Sullivan specifically wanted scrumhalf Tim Usasz to kick, because he wanted to add the scrumhalf kicking to the team’s repertoire of ways to get out of their 22. Usasz kicked, and Tonga rammed that ball right down the USA’s throat.
And then there was the late penalty. The Eagles were right on the Tonga line when they got a penalty under the posts. The score was 30-10, meaning the USA needed to score three times to catch Tonga. O’Sullivan insisted on a penalty kick, reasoning that he wanted to come away with something. Nese Malifa duly slotted the goal, leaving his team behind by 17, meaning they still needed to score three times to catch Tonga.
O’Sullivan also wanted to change his team’s approach a little to keep oppositions guessing. Unfortunately, there is no guesswork involved. To play the Eagles you need to be patient yet physical on defense, and they will turn the ball over. And to score against them you need to flood the outside channels, because it is on the wing that the USA is giving up its tries.
The Good News?
The USA team now has nine days of training in which to change things and adjust. That time should produce a more cohesive team. Right now only a select few – LaValla, Tim Stanfill, Paul Emerick, Colin Hawley – can have been said to have played at all well. Roland Suniula was thrust into the fullback roll and didn’t do badly, and Nic Johnson ensured the scrums weren't worse. Many of the other players were way under their normal performances.
O’Sullivan, for his part, isn’t too concerned (a little, but not a lot).
“This is not the World Cup,” he said. “We are not a finished product. So we still need to try out combinations and strategies. We might try a strategy and see if it works out for us. This is the time to do it.”
At times the USA looked like a team that could cause some damage, but their building blocks were too fragile, their cohesion not there. With three months until the World Cup opens for them, that fragility must go away very soon.